Troubled waters

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Farmers whose lives have been ruined by pollution in the Thi Vai River are not going away, and neither are their demands that Vedan pay for the damages in full

Farmers in Thanh An Commune, an impoverished area on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City that is still reeling from 14 years of pollution from an upstream Vedan factory that destroyed sea stocks and crops

Nguyen Xuan Ty said he might as well have died several years ago along with the section of the Thi Vai River killed off by Vedan's secret and illegal discharge of untreated wastewater.

In 2003, upon learning that his stocks of clam and blood cockle had been all but wiped out by the pollution, Ty had no idea what he would do.

"I was at a loss. I was just kneeling down [in front of the dead stocks]. It was sheer luck that I didn't commit suicide," Ty told Thanh Nien Weekly.

The water in which he bred his animals, mostly clams and cockle, in Ho Chi Minh City's Thanh An Commune had been seriously polluted since 1999, Ty said. As Vedan had already paid out compensation to local farmers whose stocks it damaged with pollution in 1996, residents had been suspicious of the Taiwanese firm. But they couldn't prove their claims with evidence until a decade later.

In September 2008, Vedan Vietnam, the Taiwanese monosodium glutamate (MSG) maker, was caught by government inspectors dumping its untreated wastewater into the Thi Vai River in the southern Dong Nai Province. The company had avoided detection by hiding pipes deep in the river, and had been sending toxic liquids through those pipes for 14 years, inspectors found.

An Environment Ministry-authorized study by the Institute of Environment and Natural Resources found in December 2009 that Vedan was responsible for 90 percent of the pollution then plaguing the Thi Vai River.

The 2009 report indicated that Vedan should compensate farmers in Dong Nai Province, Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province and Ho Chi Minh City with a total of VND1.7 trillion (US$89.2 million) for the damages it had caused, including the destruction of sea farms and damages to land crops on the banks of the river.

But the company has dismissed the damage figures presented by the institute as groundless. Vedan already inspected and assessed the damage by itself and has offered compensation far less than the government-sponsored study said the farmers are entitled to.

The waiting game

The Institute of Environment and Natural Resources concluded that Thanh An Commune in HCMC's Can Gio District, 60 kilometers to the southeast of the Vedan plant at the mouth of the Thi Vai River, had been hit by Vedan's wastewater. Despite the severe damages to the area, the level of pollution there was low compared to the most affected areas, the institute said.

"I don't know how serious the pollution is. I just know it had completely annihilated my stocks in 2003," Ty from Thanh An Commune said.

Ty lost around VND1.3 billion he had invested in 2003 alone and has been in heavy debt since. His only income now is from a small sweet soup eatery in the commune.

Many other locals in the commune whose meal ticket used to be fishing and breeding seafood have also switched to other jobs to eke out a living, said Le Hong Phuc, chairman of the Thanh An Commune Farmers' Society.

The commune is one of the five poorest in Can Gio District and among the 20 most impoverished in HCMC.

Thanh An Commune locals had filed complaints about the suspected pollution caused by Vedan for years before 2008, when the company was caught red-handed, Phuc said.

But they've been waiting in vain.

"The farmers have had enough of waiting for the compensation," Phuc said. "Vedan said the pollution level was not that serious and they had assessed the damage by themselves. But we have never ever seen a single Vedan official come here to "˜assess.'"

Thanh An farmers have demanded compensation totaling around VND46 billion. Vedan said in a statement to the HCMC government that it would only pay VND7 billion.

Elsewhere, farmers in the provinces of Ba Ria-Vung Tau and Dong Nai, where the pollution level is concluded to be much more serious than that in Thanh An Commune, are also destined for the same fate as Vedan has been offering only one-fifth of the claim to Ba Ria-Vung Tau and less than one-one-hundredth of the claim to Dong Nai.

Now or never

Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet said during a meeting with locals in HCMC's Cu Chi District on June 24 that the government would not tolerate any pollution activities of any company in the country

Triet pointed to the Vedan case.

"The US$20 billion BP pledged to compensate for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill could not bail the company out of the public outcry all over the world. The crime Vedan had caused to the Vietnamese people was much more serious than just a pollution crime."

Earlier this month, Environment Minister Pham Khoi Nguyen indicated that the government was determined to press criminal charges against major polluters in the country.

"We've backed into a corner in terms of protecting the environment and it's time for strict measures against those who try to cover up acts of pollution," he said.

Lawyer Nguyen Van Hau, the legal consultant for Thanh An Commune farmers in the Vedan case, said everything is ready for the lawsuit he plans to file at the Can Gio District People's Court later this month.

"They [Vedan] have defied not just the affected farmers. They have challenged the public and the country as well," Hau told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Hau said he would first propose that HCMC farmers boycott all Vedan products at a meeting with the municipal farmers' society on July 2.

Farmers in Ba Ria-Vung Tau and Dong Nai have also indicated their determination to bring the case to court, according to local media reports.

Hopes for justice

Wayne Lewis, a HCMC-based environment consultant, said he was convinced that the lawsuit would deliver solid results, given the national support behind the farmers.

[The impact of the environment pollution] here is far greater than it would be anywhere else in the world because there is no infrastructure in Vietnam for waste management," Lewis said.

"What do Vietnamese people think about foreign companies coming over here and polluting your country? What do you feel if those major polluters are coming to kill your people, and to maim and deform your children?"

Ty of Thanh An Commune said he was also ready for the lawsuit.

"I will go to the end of it, it could be my last chance," Ty said.

"I only hope justice will be done."

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